Of all the overblown NFL events, the nuttiness around the release of the schedule is particularly stunning to me. Fans have known their 2021 opponents for four months. The order of the games, plus television details—that’s all that’s left. I lost count at 33 different hosts/analysts/reporters on NFL Network and ESPN covering the schedule release Wednesday night, and that’s after CBS and FOX morning shows broke down the Week 1 schedules for each network.
The order of the games, I don’t care about. But how the sausage is made, that interests me. That’s what you’ll learn today. First, a few words about the voracious expansion of the NFL calendar.
Mark Cuban is fond of saying that NFL one day will have a day of reckoning for wanting to own every part of the year, and for being the 800-pound gorilla and crushing other sports. Could be. But I don’t see this tectonic shift of the NFL calendar over the last three decades getting tamer. How did we get here, to the point that the NFL gets boffo ratings to learn which weeks the Steelers play the Ravens?
Commissioner Pete Rozelle, in office till 1989, believed each sport had its season and didn’t mind the quietude of the NFL offseason, interrupted only by a spurt of coverage for the draft. But against the wishes of football traditionalists, Paul Tagliabue and some NFL executives like Joe Browne—particularly envious of baseball’s buzzy offseason—began to push for a more active offseason. Free agency kicked that off in 1993 (following a trial run of lesser lights, Plan B free agency, in ’89), and March came alive with football talk. The NFL Scouting Combine began to open up in the early 2000s; now it’s covered by 1,100 media annually. Media began covering the former sleepy business of Pro Days. The draft exploded, in part by Roger Goodell pushing it to be a road show, in part by making it a three-day orgy of hope. Last year, the NFL pushed the schedule-release date till after the draft, inventing another event to push. Off-season workouts have opened up more and more. And now the league is pushing for a July 27 Back To Football training-camp opening celebration for 28 of the 32 NFL teams
So the combine in February, free agency in March, the draft in April, the schedule-release in May, and players running around in shorts and T-shirts in May and June, camp opening in late July. Coverage City.
“A new idea—even a brilliant one—is just that, and only that, unless the league has the ability to promote it and have it reach its full potential,” Browne wrote in an email to me. Browne retired from the league in 2016 as the EVP of Communications and Government Affairs. He was the longest-serving employee (50 years) in NFL history. “That’s where the cooperation among the league office, 32 clubs, NFL.com, NFL Network plus the league’s partnerships with the networks and digital and social entities enable these ideas to be carried widely and successfully to NFL fans. It doesn’t hurt that pro football stars as number one in fan interest by a wide margin.”
It doesn’t hurt that fans have become schedule nerds, waiting intently for Schedule 102,844.
“This year,” Katz said, “was a little tricky because we weren’t sure when we began the process whether we were going to play a 16-game, 17-week schedule or 17-game, 18-week schedule. We decided we would start by building the 17-game schedule, because it was new and . . . we wanted to see what the pitfalls were. Right around the Super Bowl, we meet with all our broadcast partners. CBS and FOX basically tell us the games that they most want to keep on their [Sunday afternoon] schedule and NBC and ESPN give us the games that they would like to see on their [Sunday night and Monday night] schedule. Generally, those lists are pretty similar. Our challenge is really how we split the baby and how we allocate all of the top games . . . And then we just start running simulations and running over and over and over again.
“The definition of insanity’s doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result? That’s exactly what we do. Every day, Mike creates new seeds based on what we’ve seen and want to see. Then he puts those into the computer. The computer runs, spits things out. What the computer’s trying to do is solve our puzzle with the framework that we give it.”
What helped: Once the 17th game per team was official in late March, it added 16 games to be spread wherever the NFL wanted to put them. Instead of, say, FOX owning the games because they were all games with NFC teams as visitors, the NFL told broadcast partners that every game was a free agent. Thus, for example, Dallas at New England went to CBS, Green Bay at Kansas City stayed with FOX, Seattle at Pittsburgh went to NBC. That addition of some good extra matchups beefed up the Key Games Chart, the collection of all Sunday night, Monday night and Thursday games, special games (Thanksgiving Day, Christmas doubleheader) and CBS and FOX doubleheader games.
The major mileposts on the road to Schedule 102,844:
• The Green Bay dilemma. Once Adam Schefter reported April 29 on Aaron Rodgers’ desire to play elsewhere, the schedule team had 13 days to determine whether to wean the league off any of Green Bay’s five prime-time games, and several more as key doubleheaders games for FOX and CBS. “That got us a little nervous,” Katz told me. Katz asked around for inside info, but the story was so cloudy. No one knows Rodgers’ fate. I doubt even he does. When I saw the schedule, among everything, this jumped out at me:
Week 1: Green Bay at New Orleans, Sunday, FOX doubleheader.
Week 2: Detroit at Green Bay, Monday, ESPN.
Week 3: Green Bay at San Francisco, Sunday night, NBC.
Week 4: Pittsburgh at Green Bay, Sunday, CBS doubleheader.
Week 14: Chicago at Green Bay, Sunday night, NBC.
Week 17: Minnesota at Green Bay, Sunday night, NBC.
I said to Katz and North this looked pretty well-designed. Each network gets a piece of the Packers in the first four weeks, when they’re a fascinating story, with or without Rodgers. And those last two games—NBC has flex scheduling from Weeks 11 to 17. If the Packers are 4-8 with struggling Jordan Love at QB when that Bears game come up, the league could switch to Buffalo at Tampa, or Baltimore at Cleveland. Ditto Week 17, when Vegas-Indy or Miami-Tennessee could be plugged in.
After the Rodgers report, Katz said, “The Green Bay Packers are still the Green Bay Packers, with or without Aaron Rodgers. They’re a great team and a great brand. We started to think about some of the permutations of the schedule. Ultimately, when he didn’t get traded, we couldn’t solve for something we didn’t know. It was pretty deliberate the way we maxed out the Packers early in the season. You’re right that each of the networks has their bite at the Packers in the first month. That was deliberate.”
• “Aaron Rodgers” at Patrick Mahomes. The second-best matchup of the regular season might be the 72nd-best matchup if it’s Jordan Love or Blake Bortles at Mahomes. But the NFL is gambling, and FOX is praying, that the Pack and Rodgers do not get divorced. For a while in the scheduling process, this game was nestled as a FOX doubleheader game on Christmas weekend (Sunday, Dec. 26). But Katz thought it was too late. What if either team had clinched a playoff spot and might not play its full team for the full game? What if either team was out of contention by then? So it got moved to Week 9, the FOX doubleheader game on Nov. 7.
• The TomBill Bowl. NBC got the Week 4 mega-game—Bucs at Patriots in Tom Brady’s return to New England on Sunday night, Oct. 3. This was the game every network wanted badly, and NBC won it. “The only one we’ve ever done that I could compare it to was our first game—the Manning Bowl,” said Fred Gaudelli, the executive producer of Sunday Night Football on NBC since its inception in 2006. In Week 1 2006, NBC debuted its Sunday night package with Peyton’s Colts versus Eli’s Giants. “Such tremendous interest in that game. And this year, Tampa Bay-New England will be a story that transcends sports for the week before the game. It’s the game of the year, certainly. It might be the game of many, many years.”
I was interested in how early it’s falling. I thought the league might want the buildup to last for weeks into the season. But I get why they did it. Brady turns 44 in August, and he’s coming off off-season knee surgery, and at some point, isn’t it logical to think that a man of a certain football age won’t last a full 17 games? Plus, it’s logical to wonder if the Patriots’ 2020 struggles continue into this year. Playing it early is a hedge against the Patriots’ record, and a hedge against an old quarterback’s health.
“Each network lobbied for that game,” Katz said. “They lobbied hard. We played with that game at various stages of our schedule in different places. That game was not always on the Sunday night schedule . . . I would say by the latter part of April, we were pretty locked on the general format for the schedule and that game on Sunday night and the Green Bay-Kansas City game being as a FOX doubleheader.”
North said putting the game in Week 4 “is less about whether these teams are fighting for division races, playoff implications, less likely to have an injury, less likely to have weather. The story can be about Brady’s return. It would be different if Tom’s standing on the 50-yard line watching a tribute video in November in six inches of snow. Or, the later in the season we go, the more likely somebody’s injured. Getting in early, having that story told, made some sense.”
• Fixing some road issues. In 2017, the schedule had seven teams with three-game road trips; this year, there are three. In 2017, five teams followed road Monday games with road Sunday games; this year, there’s one (Miami, Weeks 16, 17: at New Orleans on Monday, at Tennessee on Sunday). Back to what got fixed in travel disparity in Schedule 102,844.
Instead of Minnesota traveling to San Francisco and Arizona in Weeks 1 and 2, the league shifted Week 1 to Cincinnati, saving the Vikings three hours of travel time round-trip in the first week.
Instead of the Las Vegas-Baltimore-New Jersey road trip for Cincinnati, the league subbed Detroit for Vegas, and moved Cincinnati’s trip to Nevada to Week 11. That saves the Bengals five hours, total, of travel time in the first weekend of the three.
Instead of the Titans playing at Seattle and at the Rams in Weeks 8 and 9, now it’s Indianapolis and Los Angeles trips back to back. Nashville to Indy: 55 minutes of flight time. Nashville to L.A.: four hours, 15 minutes.
But fixing the Denver issue of two long trips to start the season couldn’t be fixed without creating bigger problems. Who knows? If Carey gave the computers more time, it’s possible a shorter trip could have been subbed for one of these. But this crew, collectively, has more than 70 years of schedule-making experience, and they doubted they’d be able to find a Denver solution. In the end, the league could fix most things, but not everything.
• A weird bye story. Four teams play in London this year—Jets-Atlanta Oct. 10, Miami-Jacksonville Oct. 17, both at 9:30 a.m. ET. The Jets, Falcons and Jags have byes following the games. The Dolphins don’t. They return from London to play a 1 p.m. home game with Atlanta the next week.
Turns out Miami asked to not have its bye the week following the London game. The Dolphins wanted a later bye … and though the Week 14 bye means they play their first 13 games without a break, I still think it’s better to have the bye much later than Week 7. Plus there’s this: It’s likely, barring travel snafus, that the Dolphins will get back from the London game by about 1:15 a.m. Monday. Miami plays at Las Vegas in Week 3, a 4:05 p.m. ET game. Barring travel snafus there too, the Dolphins should return to south Florida about 1:45 a.m. So Miami’s reasoning, I’m sure, was, Let’s not blow our bye early, especially when the London game is just like coming home from a West Coast game.
“Philly was in the mix to go with Atlanta to London,” North said. “They were more than willing to take a home game after London. Most of these teams now have been to London. Everybody’s really kind of figured it out.”
No byes till Week 6. That’s the first time since the league started giving byes that the weeks off have started that late. Teams just hate the early byes. “Don’t forget,” North said. “Tampa had a Week 13 bye last year. Everybody got healthy. They didn’t lose again.”
Regarding the social byproducts of the schedule release: Teams now use the schedule release to get cute on social media. The competition there is intense too. The Cowboys this year engaged Post Malone—Dak Prescott’s favorite artist—to make a schedule-release video with Jerry Jones. Denver got summer intern Peyton Manning to receive the schedule and print it out for the organization. And so forth.
Well, the Broncos may not be the prime-time darlings they once were, but their social team wins. As of 3 p.m. ET Sunday, the Manning video ranked first in the NFL in total views with 1.96 million. On Twitter, the Manning video was beating Post Malone, 674,000 to 666,000.
For better or worse, this is not Pete Rozelle’s NFL.